1. Health

Local leaders request permission to use genetically modified mosquitoes in Pinellas County

Elected leaders from the Tampa Bay area are calling on the federal government to allow them to use genetically modified mosquitoes to fight the spread of Zika in Pinellas County.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has already approved the technology for a trial in Key West, saying it has no significant impact on the environment.

But while the trial has been held up by Key West residents who mistrust genetic modification more than they fear the Zika virus, local leaders say that would not have an impact on their pursuit of this technology.

"It's not, 'Hey, is anyone going to get mad at us?' " said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, of his discussions with other lawmakers. "The primary concern was the protection of the people of Pinellas County."

The state Health Department confirmed the first local transmission of Zika in Pinellas on Tuesday, three weeks after Zika's first U.S. transmission in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. There are currently 43 cases of local transmission in Florida, and more than 600 total Zika patients.

The letter to Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell of the Department of Health and Human Services is signed by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, state Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes, state Reps. Larry Ahern, James W. Grant, Chris Latvala, Kathleen Peters, Darryl Rouson and Sprowls; and all seven members of the Pinellas County Commission.

The letter asks the government to authorize commissioners to use the technology "should they deem it necessary."

"As you are aware," says the letter, "this virus poses a serious risk to our community, particularly to pregnant women and their unborn children. Our community cannot afford any delay in the utilization of every tool at our disposal."

The Tampa Bay Times reported extensively on the GMO mosquito issue in the Keys, where residents are skeptical of the science even though it has been proven safe to humans and the environment by the FDA.

Sprowls, who organized the signatures, has a pregnant wife. He said most of the other lawmakers he contacted had read the Times story and were familiar with the Oxitec mosquito technology.

Welch said he was open to legitimate concerns from residents but believed the science to be sound. Shortly after posting the news on his Facebook page Friday, a Tampa woman commented that Zika was caused by genetically-modified mosquitoes — a false rumor that had also spread in Key West. That doesn't sway him.

"If the science is solid, and it certainly seems like it is, we ought to use every available tool to stop the spread of Zika in Pinellas," Welch said.

A more uphill battle for these leaders may lie with the federal government. The FDA has previously said that its rules prohibit the emergency use of animal products; Oxitec's mosquito is technically an "animal drug" that received approval through the Center for Veterinary Science.

On Wednesday, the agency reiterated that stance. Juli Putnam, an FDA spokeswoman, suggested Pinellas instead contact Oxitec directly to seek a local trial.

Hadyn Parry, the CEO of Oxitec, said his company would be "poised and ready" to work with Pinellas officials.

"We are confident that Oxitec can provide the region with a much-needed additional defense against the mosquito," Parry said in an email.

The company would likely need to seek additional approval from the FDA to release mosquitoes in Pinellas.

But local lawyers aren't convinced that the FDA's decision on the emergency-use authorization renders the Pinellas letter moot.

Mike Allen, professor of law at Stetson University, said the FDA's provision is broad enough to offer multiple interpretations, and the agency could choose to greenlight Oxitec's mosquito.

"It's a political issue, really," Allen said. "If there's sufficient political pressure on the FDA, then the FDA could reconsider its position."

Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.